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A Weary Optimist on Peace Dialogues

I am a seventh generation Jerusalemite. Although I immigrated to the United States at the age of nine and live here now, I went back to live in Israel during the 60’s. For the past twenty years, I have been involved in dialogue between Arabs and Jews. For over a decade, I have been helping Arab and Jewish women to talk to one another. As a feminist, I believed that women could carve ourselves a common space, and reach beyond borders and stereotypes.

When I first began meeting with Arab women, I saw the tale of Sarah and Hagar as a paradigm for this process. After all, Sarah was the mother of Isaac — the father of the Jewish people — and Hagar was the mother of Ishmael — the father of the Arab people. But how could I use this primal tale, with its final scene of banishment, as a symbol for a dialogue of reconciliation? Enter the feminist vision. Can women resolve conflicts differently from men? In search of answers, I began my journey.

On a fact-finding mission to the Middle East in 1975, I met feminist author Dr. Nuwel Saadawi in Cairo. The bustling crowds, packed buses, honking cars, and smell of fried foods in the city reminded me of Tel Aviv’s central bus station, and I felt an additional sense of familiarity when I began talking to Saadawi. Silver-haired, flashing dark eyes: she seemed very much alive, and I felt an instant rapport between us.

We talked about the condition of village women, about clitoridectomies — including her own — and her campaign against them. We talk about her life as an independent attractive married woman, about feminism in America, about her novels. Before we said good-bye, I asked her to get in touch with me on her next trip to the United States.

A few years later, she was imprisoned for political activity against the government. I sent a letter with someone who was going to visit her in prison; I was relieved when she was released.

She called me on her arrival in New York in the late 70’s. I rushed to meet her. Sitting on a bench near Rockefeller Center, we held hands, and recounted the details of our lives; I went to hear her speak at the U.N.

When we first met, I had not spoken of my Jerusalem roots because it was still risky for a Jerusalem-born Jew to travel to Arab countries, even on an American passport. I don’t remember a particular moment of revelation, but at some point, I “came out” to Nuwel as a Zionist. Perhaps it was during a conversation about the Holocaust, when she said that Hitler’s policy was motivated by his need for capital; hence he requisitioned Jewish property.

Are you justifying his policy towards the Jews, I asked. No, but she was explaining it from Hitler’s perspective. I recall no other dramatic incident, but I never heard from her again.

Also in 1975,I met Raymonda Tawil, a Palestinian woman whose autobiography, My Home My Prison, describes her evolution as an independent woman under Israeli military rule on the West Bank. Raymonda founded the first Palestinian news agency and has since emerged as an effective, and controversial, PLO spokesperson.

On a hot summer afternoon, in Raymonda’s villa on the suburban edge of Ramallah, a West Bank city lined with terraces and olive trees, I had my first long conversation (in English, French and translated Arabic) with West Bank women.

I was introduced to Raymonda’s friends as an American feminist writer. The women were in their 30’s, educated, and nationalists. They talked of everything ranging from the condition of women under the Israeli occupation to the difficulties facing them within Arab society.

Inshira, a divorcee, a Marxist, and a novelist told me, “In the Arab community a divorcee is like a whore. Every man thinks he can have you easily.” That afternoon, these women told me how difficult it is to be a single woman in a traditional society, particularly when there are more women than men. (Many Palestinian men have left to work elsewhere.)

I left Raymonda’s exhilarated. The evening confirmed that women who had been strangers hours before could transcend cultural boundaries and really talk. Still, I had no illusions. These were Palestinian women who supported the PLO, despite their private criticism of the organization. The PLO was their representative; they knew they had to place the national struggle over women’s issues.

I visited Raymonda each time I went to Israel over the years. With each visit, I began to understand the crucial role that West Bank women were playing in the growing Palestinian challenge to occupation. As more restrictions were imposed on men’s political activities, women’s actions increased.

In 1978, on a Ms. magazine sponsored tour of Israel, I suggested that Raymonda Tawil address the group. This was right after the terrorist attack on a bus of civilians travelling along the Haifa-Tel Aviv coastal route. The women were shocked by Raymonda’s lack of compassion for those killed in the attack, her nationalist fervor, her commitment to a Palestinian state, and her warning: if the Israelis don’t respond, there will be violence.

As feminists, the participants had wished for a Palestinian spokesperson who could surmount her nationalistic identity, and refute the horror of terrorist acts. Instead, they heard an impassioned plea for nationalism reminiscent of Chairman Arafat. What was not apparent to them was that Raymonda, recognizing the reality of Israel, was calling for a two-state solution. Several of her PLO male counterparts have been killed for advocating a similar position.

In the spring of 1984, more than 100 Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Suffis, American Indians gathered in the Sinai desert to participate in an ecumenical religious gathering. There were two Jewish feminists there — Esther Broner and myself. In a splendid display of color and costumes reminiscent of a Cecil B. DeMille movie set, rituals and prayers were offered on behalf of peace. But I found myself deeply depressed. Esther and I did not feel represented in the circle of prayer. I did not hear the sound of women.

We decided to make a women’s ritual — a performance piece based on the theme of Sarah and Hagar. We invited two Egyptians and two Israelis to participate. Under the star-filled night below Mt. Sinai, surrounded by patriarchs past and present, we staged a dialogue between the daughters of Sarah and Hagar. Lit by a circle of flickering candles, with music beating in the background, the women spoke of their dreams, their pains, and of their future. In that dark night, it appeared that we all communicated; and, when we said our good-byes, we promised one another that this was just a beginning. We could use love instead of violence as a way of solving conflict.

A month later, in preparation for my documentary film, “Between Sarah and Hagar,” I wrote to several of the Egyptian women from the Gathering and asked if I could interview them for my film. Most did not respond. One wrote back explaining that it was not the right time politically.

I flew to Israel to begin shooting that summer, anyway. When I talked to Israeli Jews about my project, I sensed that they were angry with me. I was raising an old issue — what does the story of Sarah and Hagar have to do with the situation today? They were on the defensive: the story puts the onus of banishment on them. Judy, an Israeli Jew actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, tried to convince me to drop the Sarah and Hagar story. “It doesn’t mean the same thing to the Palestinians as it does to you,” she told me. Nevertheless, I travelled to Beir Zeit University, outside Ramallah, to meet with two Palestinian women. I told one of them, if women are to effect history, we have to go back to original tribal myths, back to the root of the separation between the Arab and Jewish peoples. She told me, Palestinian women are not psychologically oriented, they won’t understand your hypothesis.

Rita, one of the Arab women I spoke with, said she would not cooperate with me on the film. She had participated in a speaking tour with an Israeli Jew throughout the United States, but Sarah and Hagar had no relevance for her. Her concern is the present, she told me. It is a political situation which can only be dealt with in a political manner. Although she saw the metaphorical value of the Sarah and Hagar tale, she would not relate to it because of its biblical context. If not for the Bible, she told me, the Jews would lose their justification for being here.

My nights were very troubled. I dreamed of Sarah and Hagar, they would not speak to each other. I kept trying to bring them together, pushing them towards each other, but they didn’t budge.

A week later, I met two students, Raban and Fatiah, on the terrace of a student’s hangout near Beir Zeit University. I was surprised to see each of them in an el toub (a long black dress and head scarf). I learned that neither had been raised in an orthodox home — they had turned to fundamentalism only six months before.

I asked them: Could women be a force for peace? “Yes, but not alone,” Raban answered. “They must do it with men.”

Raban and Fatiah agreed to be filmed for my documentary, but as the day approached, they grew nervous and changed their minds. Since I didn’t want to lose contact with them, I went to visit Raban’s village without a film crew.

Raban lived in a modest stone home outside of Kalandia, a village built by refugees after 1948. After eating a feast her mother had prepared, we went into the living room, arranged in typical Arab style with chairs lined along the walls, brocaded Damascus tapestries, and photographs of either martyred male relatives or loved ones living afar.

I was not prepared for the two dozen women who suddenly filled the room. They all wore el toubs, but suddenly, in a flourish that reminded me of butterflies, they took these off and came into focus. The older women wore dresses of colorful prints; the younger women wore jeans and tee shirts.

Raban then announced we were going to the mosque. The women donned their el toubs, and once again, I was surrounded by a group of women in black. Raban and Fatiah led us through the village, down the hill to the mosque. The women’s section had a separate entrance. It was connected to the men’s services by a loudspeaker. Yet, as I soon found out, the women were in the mosque then not only to pray but to also to have a consciousness-raising session!

Raban usually led this women’s group, but, she whispered to me, she had her period and therefore Fatiah would be the leader.

There were approximately 65 women seated on the carpeted floor. Raban asked me to go around the group and introduce myself to each woman. For a moment I was paralyzed, then, I opened up my heart. I approached each woman, looked into her eyes, shook her hand or nodded my head, and said my name. We were exchanging an emotion, without a common language.

The women began to ask one another questions. What should I do about my daughter-in-law, she shows no respect for me? What should I do about my mother, she doesn’t trust me one inch, and yet I am such an honorable daughter?

At the end of the day, Fatiah, Raban and her mother walked me to the car. They gave me roses and cakes. We all cried. When I returned to the United States, I wrote them a letter and enclosed some photographs I had taken. I never heard from them again. I was moved by the experience, I learned more about the lives of Palestinian women, yet I ask myself: Is that enough? I doubt that my meeting with Raban, Fatiah and their friends advanced the cause of peace.

Although I am weary of just talk, I have learned that political dialogue is not only talking, it is listening, and hearing the other’s painful truth.

Over the years, I have learned painfully not to have expectations but to keep faith that maintaining a link to the other is worthwhile. Because, if not, what is left? Better to exchange words than bullets or stones. Better to have dialogues than deportations.

I am no longer so optimistic about women working together to bring about peace in the Middle East. But I stay committed to this journey of dialogue with other women instead of falling into despair. I have no other choice.

Lilly Rivlin trained as a political scientist and has worked as a journalist, writer and filmmaker for the last 25 years. She has written for major consumer magazines; her film credits include “The Tribe” and “Miriam’s Daughters Now.”